Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Junot Diaz: "Miss Lora"

Scene from Threads
If you haven't read about Yunior before, you've just had a treat. This smart, sex-crazed, suffering man who narrates "Miss Lora" is one of the primary characters in Junot Díaz's first collection of short stories, Drown. He is also a member of the supporting cast in the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. And finally, he appears prominently in Díaz's 2012 story collection, This Is How You Lose Her. Both "Miss Lora" and "The Sun, the Moon, the Stars" appear in this latest book. In a New York Times book review, Leah Hager Cohen observes, "Junot Díaz writes in an idiom so electrifying and distinct it’s practically an act of aggression, at once alarming and enthralling, even erotic in its assertion of sudden intimacy." This is fiction in which voice dominates, no doubt. The narration is alternately insightful and helpless, regretful and furious, crude and erudite, and Díaz can switch lightning-fast between these personality traits and somehow make you utterly believe in the solidity, the wholeness, the reality, of Yunior, the narrator.

But voice aside, this story breaks my heart.  Its depictions of loneliness and pain are paired with the characters' compromised efforts to find respite from their loneliness and pain. Yunior and Miss Lora both concern themselves with apocalyptic films because life has "messed [them] up good" and they project their internal destruction into external destruction. Yunior and Miss Lora have many similarities: both are immigrants from the Dominican Republic, both physically muscular, both traumatized by family life, both sleeping with their teachers. The way things repeat in the story (e.g. Miss Lora wears her red dress at one graduation, and then another) is similar to the greater picture of how history repeats itself (like-father-like-son machismo, or more sweepingly, one answerless death like another). And "blood always shows," as Yunior tells his ambitious girlfriend. Miss Lora has enormous eyes, and she sees the pain in young Yunior, and he finds her need for him compelling. Sometimes, our response to being exposed to trauma is to seek it out in representations, such as movies, or books, or photographs in which we are smiling and blinking and keeping on keeping on.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Charles Baxter: "Bravery"

Image from Adam McLean's Alchemy Website
In her introduction to Best American Short Stories 2013, Elizabeth Strout writes about the trust a reader must feel in order to be interested in a story.  Trust is earned, she implies, when a writer manages to sustain authority through voice, in the face of surprise plot twists, in the face of language’s instabilities, in times when characters are hard tried by fates their fictional lives have handed them.  For a writer like Charles Baxter, who so often writes about varieties of staged strangeness, and desire, and wonder, the reader's trust depends on how the “strange” is perceived by the characters. Are Baxter’s characters ever perceiving strangeness honestly?  And if not, do they have good reason for their dishonesties? 

In "Gryphon," first published in 1985, the young narrator desperately wishes to believe in Miss Ferenczi, a character who tosses off lines (and irresponsible logic) to children such as, "Do you think [...] that anyone is going to be hurt by a substitute fact?"  When I first read this (as a much younger person than I am now), like the young narrator, I was not sure of my answer to Miss Ferenczi’s question.  Yes, her “substitute fact”-finding leads the children to fear and to violence.  But I wanted to believe in her as a savior from a known tedium and conformity.  

I don’t see Miss Ferenczi as a savior any longer, maybe because I no longer trust “fact” itself, substitute or not.  I trust Baxter because he shows me what I do believe: that people’s perceptions are formed by deeply held fears and desires.  Baxter shows me individuals who fail at questioning that which informs them.  Reading "Bravery," published 27 years later, have I changed in that I find this show quite obvious, or has the author perhaps grown weary of misinterpretation? 

In “Bravery,” Baxter exposes “truth” such as “Every mother feels this way, every mother has felt this, it’s time to stand up” for what it is: informed by prejudice and the need for self-definition.  He reveals Susan’s blind spot right in the beginning of the story: she needs boys to be a certain way, to react a certain predictable way that defines them as male, so that she can find self-worth.  She believes she has secret wisdom in knowing that boys are “not all alike”—but part of what is revealed to the reader is that Susan doesn’t really believe this…she sustains this false belief so that she can be special, find the special one, the one who is almost perfect in his “variables”…but in the end, she actually believes that men should be all alike.  They should be men.  They should be brave, and manly, right up until someone gives them a black eye.  And let them have their black eye!  Her husband, Elijah, Susan confirms, “would want his badge. They all wanted that.”  

In the end, she will pretend to believe his story about rescuing a woman in danger, a story she suspects to be false, so that she can sustain a deeper falsehood that allows her self-definition.  Wow!  Baxter’s magic trick is to show us what lies behind “magic”: our belief in it is in us, in our desire to believe one thing and not another. 

Does his storytelling free us to see past our own desires?  Or is this just another kind of desire? 

P.S. Susan believes in her heart that she has been able to interpret the crazy woman’s message, even though the woman was speaking another language.  Know this: “Pozor” does not mean “beware” in Czech.  It means “pay attention.”